Shining a light on workforce mental health and wellness

Due to the extreme challenges brought on by the pandemic, many organizational leaders are resolute in adopting new measures aimed at supporting mental health and wellness in the workplace.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which recently passed its one-year mark, has thrown a discerning spotlight on the way mental health and wellness is addressed in the workplace.

Before the pandemic, it was estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that roughly one in five U.S. adults struggled with a mental health disorder. In a more recent survey conducted by the CDC in June 2020, which aimed to examine how the pandemic was affecting mental health, substance abuse and suicidal ideation, 40 percent of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or a substance use issue. The pervasiveness of each varies by age, race/ethnicity, gender and employment status; however, these issues were elevated overall.

Across the world, people share similar stressors — pandemic-related worries, financial well-being, personal physical health, the health of others, anxieties surrounding the spread of false facts and misinformation, not to mention the threat of long-term isolation and the collective grief over the loss of many lives and the “old normal.” A lot has changed.

“The biggest challenge with the pandemic was that it impacted all areas of our lives,” says Anna Samorukova, chief of learning, change and transformation at Edelweiss Group. “I call it a multi-dimensional impact because even before [the pandemic] organizations were going through all kinds of changes and transformational efforts — system change, mergers and acquisitions. It’s usually very stressful for people inside their organizations. A majority of people would find peace when they go back home. They had some escape. With the pandemic, there is no escape.”

In essence, change is challenging in the first place because it impacts not only our brains, but our motivation, Samorukova says. And motivation requires a sense of autonomy, relatedness, mastery and purpose, all of which were limited by the pandemic.

“So there’s a lot of limitations in our bodies, our systems and our brains,” she says.

Due to the extreme challenges brought on by the pandemic, many organizational leaders are resolute in adopting new measures aimed at supporting mental health and wellness in the workplace.

Samorukova says she has seen a large variety of wellness programs arise during the pandemic, and the ones that work the best give users a sense of choice and control.

Front lines of wellness

At University Health, an academic medical center and network of outpatient health care centers across San Antonio and South Texas, most employees are essential workers, and remote work was ultimately not an option for them this past year.

“The daily reality of caring for very sick patients in large numbers has made for weary staff,” says Denise Pruett, executive director for University Health’s Center for Learning Excellence. “They are coping with exhaustion, burnout and trauma exposure. And they’re frustrated with our community residents who have ignored public health advice.”

In order to better support the teaching hospital and its network of outpatient health care centers’ workforce, organizational leaders have adopted a number of staff support systems intended to holistically become a part of the organization’s culture.

“Caring for our workforce to reduce stress and compassion fatigue is not a new concept,” Pruett says. “This pandemic has stretched our front-line staff as well as support departments to their limits. No longer is ‘caring’ for our workforce something that is ‘good to do,’ but it is imperative if we want to ensure sufficient health care workers are available for the next public health crises, like floods, hurricanes, mass shooting casualties or the next pandemic.”

University Health created an internal child care support system, which enables child care-seeking employees to connect with caregivers in other employees’ families, Pruett says. The organization has also created a resource team, comprising staff from transportation, surgical operations and jobs that were displaced by COVID-19, and retrained them to work with employee health, infection control and mental health experts to offer support and services through a call center. For individual employees or teams seeking emotional care, there are self-care carts on high-mortality units and a rapid response team of wellness specialists called Code Lavender. There is also a daily support huddle on COVID-19 patient care floors.

In addition to implementing these new support systems, the hospital has dedicated 10 separate spaces within the building for staff to decompress — with comfortable furniture, artwork, essential oil diffusers and resources that encourage mindfulness and relaxation.

And for the smaller percentage of employees who are in nonessential roles, a new, temporary workforce strategy enacted by University Health’s CEO in April 2020 allows PTO of up to four weeks for rest and family time, Pruett says. Those without PTO could accrue negative balances for up to four weeks, an offering that is still available as their community experienced a second surge, and many of their staff were infected or are caring for an infected family member.

“With community vaccinations currently underway, there’s a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel — but this crisis is not over by any means,” Pruett says. “The time is now for health care organizations to develop plans or review plans to support the physical, emotional and psychosocial needs of our workforce. These plans should be included as part of their emergency preparedness incident management system.”

Similarly, at Vi, a Chicago-based organization operating 10 continuing care retirement communities across the country, leaders decided they wanted to add a preventive mental health benefit for their workforce. In January 2021, they added digital mental health and well-being platform LifeSpeak to the organization’s wellness benefits. The platform is available for all Vi employees and their family members.

Judy Whitcomb, Vi’s senior vice president of human resources, learning and organizational development, says they ultimately chose the platform because it is easy to use and available to individuals at any time of day. It was also critical for the platform to include resources in Spanish, as many team members speak English as a second language, she adds.

“By continuing to provide our team members easily accessible tools and resources to support their physical and emotional well-being, we hope to support healthier habits that contribute to and foster resilience,” Whitcomb says.

Whitcomb says Vi leaders recognize that many of their team members have responsibilities outside of work, such as child care, parent care or taking classes: “Eliminating barriers and creating greater accessibility for wellness benefits allows our team members to charter a path toward their greater well-being on their terms.”

As the pandemic rages on, caregivers at assisted living facilities are facing some of the highest mortality rates among their elderly residents. Deaths at long-term care facilities, which include senior and assisted living facilities, account for roughly 37 percent of all U.S. COVID-19 deaths.

“There is a devastating loss of life, and loss of life as we once knew it,” Whitcomb says. “Our team members carry an enormous responsibility of providing service and care to the most vulnerable population the pandemic has impacted.”

A more open, honest culture

Unfortunately, despite the rise in the number of individuals facing mental health issues, Whitcomb says there continues to be a stigma around discussing these issues, which is why one of the most important things that an HR or learning executive can do in supporting mental well-being is to advocate for normalizing conversations about mental health.

“We must continually strive to create a supportive environment that leads to a mentally healthy culture,” she says.

Samorukova says language on delivery of these wellness programs and benefits can help people who normally wouldn’t accept something that was for mental health. “It’s part of the defense mechanism,” she says. “Mental health can be triggering or a little bit repelling: ‘Does it mean that I’m not mentally healthy?’”

At the same time, leaders also need to be extremely intentional about making time for their own mental health and wellness, Samorukova says. As the pandemic progressed, she says she has seen through news and social media that people in organizations want their leaders to be more compassionate and understanding.

“But before you’re able to do that, [as a leader], you need to really connect with your own self and overcome all of those reactions to change,” she says. “If we bottle all those emotions inside, eventually they are going to come up, and we cannot lead from a place of authentic self.”